Nobody likes a quitter — even in politics

“Voters quickly forget what a man says.”

— Richard Nixon

Politicians are always keenly aware that their tenure in office often hinges on the mood of the electorate.  But politicians have always understood that a scandal would end their career, or at the very least, put it on life support.  Government officials knew this was how the game was played.  A scandal means they fall on their sword and resign.  They embarrass the party, their state, the nation?  Time for them to move on.  Depending on the nature of the mistake, maybe he or she can score a second act after a few years of penance.

There are plenty of examples in the modern era of American politics.  Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich (R-GA) resigned after an unethical book deal (which also cost him $300,000 in penalties).  I mean, Fox News still lets him make an appearance on their shows, but he’s unelectable.

Anyone old enough to remember Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR)?  The Washington Post ran an article detailing accusations from 10 different women claiming the senator sexually harassed or sexually abused them.  The Senate Ethics Committee recommended an expulsion, and Packwood bowed out on his own.  

Karl Rove, a senior advisor to President George W. Bush, resigned after allegations of exerting improper influence over multiple situations.  

Check out the precipitous drop in Anthony Weiner’s favorability numbers among Democratic voters in New York

Do I need to mention Anthony Weiner (D-NY)?  The former Congressman was a rising star in the Democratic Party, until media outlets reported that he texted nude pictures of himself to various women.  He quit his position in the House, and almost had a shot in a mayoral election in New York City … until he did the same thing again (please google “Carlos Danger.”)

Mark Foley (R-FL), a former House member, resigned in 2006 after allegations surfaced that he was sending sexuality explicit messages to pages.

Larry Craig (R-ID), a senator charged with soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a public restroom.  Though he maintained his innocence, he resigned in 2007.

Chris Lee, (R-NY), resigned after soliciting a woman on Craigslist and e-mailing shirtless photos of himself.

There are dozens of examples of politicians behaving badly.  But they understood that when confronted with evidence, they needed to do everyone a favor and walk away.   Despite the seemingly endless nature of scandals and foolish decisions of politicians, there are rules even among the sharks.  

The landscape of politics changed in 2016, for a number of reasons.  However, it seems clear that the new playbook for politics suggests a different path forward.  Caught in a scandal?  Admit it, deny it, gaslight accusers, but do not resign.  Ride out the storm of disapproval.  Take the beating the press will hand out.  Hide in the office.  But a refusal to resign means a longer stay in power and the hope that voters will forget.

How are we seeing this play out? 

Former President Donald Trump set this tone (though we will see he isn’t the only factor in causing this shift).  Practically any number of gaffes during his 2016 Election campaign would have crushed candidates before him.  Democrats unleashed a video of Trump and television host Billy Bush prior to a taping Access Hollywood, where Trump described how he repeatedly attempted to seduce married woman, and mused about his celebrity status, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ‘em by the p***y. You can do anything.”  Under the old rules, that would have been damning enough.  However, Trump dismissed it as ‘locker room talk,’ not to be taken seriously. 

In 2018, news outlets reported that Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, paid $130,000 to an adult film star for a non-disclosure agreement about her sexual affair with Trump in 2006.  While Trump distanced himself from the payment, he did not deny the affair.

Trump, left, was accused of mocking Kovaleski, right.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump also mocked the physical handicap of New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski.

Trump, as president, attempted to leverage Ukrainian officials to conduct an investigation into the Biden family to discredit current President Joe Biden.  This earned Trump his first impeachment.  His second impeachment stemmed from actions on the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, where he urged on his supporters, who wrongfully claimed that Trump truly won the election.

Any historian or political scientist could write volumes about the insane antics of Trump, but that’s not the point.  Trump’s actions set a terrible precedent because despite evidence of his terrible nature, he refused to step away from politics.  Regardless of what journalists uncovered, or the slew of allegations of sexual assault from dozens of women, Trump defied the unwritten rules of politics.

Trump crossed the Rubicon with his refusal to relent in the face of evidence of his transgressions.  Other politicians (from both parties) now understand they have no obligation to play by the old rules, either.  These politicians hope that once the initial news cycle with their scandal fades away, so will the memories of the voters.  

Remember Governor Andrew Cuomo from New York?  I wrote about his underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in senior centers and the concerning allegations of sexual harassment.  He’s riding the rough waves and refusing to yield to the calls for his resignation, even from his own party.  The New York General Assembly passed laws weakening the power of the governor, but Cuomo remains undeterred.  If the people want him out, they’ll have to vote him out.  Cuomo has already announced plans to run again in 2022.

Congressman Gaetz in the running for world’s most punchable face

Travel westward and catch up with current Governor Greg Gianforte of Montana.  You might remember him for body slamming Ben Jacobs, a reporter from The Guardian.  Gianforte didn’t stop his campaign for House of Representatives, but did receive a misdemeanor conviction for assault and had to pay $4,400 in restitution to Jacobs.  Gianforte served two terms in the House before transitioning to his current role as governor.

Speaking of governors behaving badly, Governor Ralph Northam (D-VA), faced a controversy in 2019 when a medical school yearbook photo surfaced with Northam wearing blackface standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood.  Northam apologized for the photo, but then later claimed he was neither man in the photograph and had no recollection of it.  Regardless, he resisted the intense pressure for him to resign.

Perhaps the most disgusting politician using this new tactic is Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL).  The bombastic congressman faces allegations that he had sex with a 17 year old girl.  Gaetz is also connected to corrupt and disgraced Florida politician Joel Greenberg, who used his position in government to defraud taxpayers and run a sex trafficking ring.  Greenberg recently cut a deal with prosecutors, likely to avoid a long prison sentence in exchange for testimony against his long time ‘friend’ Gaetz.  The congressman admits to nothing and claims “the deep state” is plotting against him.

Big time politics comes to West Virginia 

Political operators at the state level see these tactics and they quickly adopt them.  In 2019, Glen Dale Police arrested and charged State Senator Mike Maroney (R-02) with conspiracy, house of ill fame and assignation and prostitution.  The charges were later dropped, despite police finding Maroney’s phone number in a prostitute’s phone and thousands of messages exchanged.  The prevailing thought is that Maroney’s lawyers were going to draw out his trial as long as possible, making the cost of his trial a drain on the finances of the town of Glen Dale and Marshall County.  He currently retains his seat in the West Virginia State Senate.

Delegate Mandt tries to play on fears that ‘they’ are out to get you but he can’t tell you who this mysterious ‘they’ are, and yes, this came from his Facebook page

In the Huntington area, Delegate John Mandt (R-16) is no stranger to controversial statements and actions that would ruin the careers of most politicians. In response to the local mosque in Huntington having a candlelight vigil, Mandt, unprompted, posted on Facebook, “Anything Muslim is going to be associated with Democrats. It’s better to stay away than be associated with them.”  

After a number of other disparaging remarks appeared about the gay and lesbian citizens in the state, Mandt caused another stir.  Just prior to the 2020 Election, Mandt’s number appeared to be up when screenshots of a group chat showed him using inflammatory language directed at gay and lesbian citizens, and Muslims.  In the wake of this revelation, Mandt resigned, but quickly reversed course and said his name was still on the ballot for the upcoming election and asked his supporters to re-elect him to the House of Delegates.  And without hesitation, his supporters did just that.

Last week, Delegate Joe Jeffries (R-22) posted a vulgar and sexually explicit video on TikTok, which garnered a great deal of criticism.  Jeffries made no apology for the video, commenting only, “I’m an elected official, but I’m still a real person.”  Despite being removed from all committee assignments, Jeffries says he has no plans to resign.

Whether or not you approve or disapprove of these men and their actions on a private level is up to you, but the lesson they’ve drawn is clear.  Regardless of their conduct as public officials, none of it means resigning from office.

Why is this happening?

Of course, it’s easy to lay all of this at the feet of former President Donald Trump.  And he deserves a significant share of the blame, but Trump is only the catalyst for this.  A few underlying causes have been simmering … 

1. Decline in trust in the media.  One of the key institutions in holding government accountable holds less sway than it once did.  Sometimes, news outlets make mistakes, or the public becomes dissatisfied with the stories receiving coverage or how they’re covered.  Also, the media reports information which upsets the natural order of our thinking.  People don’t trust the media at times because it makes them aware of events they don’t want to believe.

Gallup’s poll reveals a slow degradation of faith in the media

The decline in the faith in media to report accurately leads destruction of a once trusted voice.  Not even the most objective news outlets have enough credibility for may Americans.  Too often, we do not want to see the overwhelming evidence right in front of us.

2. Tribalism and failure to condemn ‘our guy.’  It’s always pretty easy to pile on the people we don’t like or who don’t represent our views, but what happens when one of our political heroes is mired in scandal?  The refusal of politicians at the highest levels of leadership in their parties and in our nation to condemn the exploits of their bad actors translates to others believing the behavior is tolerable.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are the worst offenders in this regard.  (And before you say in your head, “But what about Pelosi and Biden?,” you should read their comments on Cuomo and Northam.)

3. Post-modernist thinking.  If you aren’t familiar with the post-modernist movement from the 1990s and early 2000s, the key concept from their academic thinking was to call everything into question.  There is no absolute truth and everything is relative.  While post-modernist thinking has fallen out of favor (for a number of good reasons), its residue in American society is that everything in politics can be called into question, vis-á-vis, “fake news.”  Someone makes the claim that Politician A committed certain crimes.  Politicians will explain it away as simply untrue.  A free-floating standard of truth allows politicians to conjure up any explanation for their actions which they can offer as plausible.  

4. Politics of fear.  When any politician finds themselves embroiled in a scandal, they appeal to the fear of the general population to save them.  One tactic is to claim that even if the scandal is true, you can defuse the situation by advocating that a flawed member of your party is still better than even the best member of the opposing party.  Another tactic utilizing fear involves establishing or endorsing conspiracy theories and positing that the evil forces behind the conspiracy.  

Why do campaigns spend so much of their advertising budget on negative campaigns?  They’re effective. They provoke fear through false or misleading statements which make voters worry that if they pick the wrong candidate, society will fall apart.  President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ran the infamous “Daisy ad,” which implied a nation led by Republican Barry Goldwater would end up in a disastrous nuclear war.  Not to be outdone, the 1988 campaign for President George H.W. Bush included the “Willie Horton ad,” which painted Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime through a campaign ad aimed at suburban white citizens.

Part of this fear-mongering includes deflecting criticism about a scandal to other problems.  Give the people a greater problem than your scandal to think about, and they will.  “Yes, I make this awful statement, but I’m the only one protecting you from them.  They’re really after you and I’m just in their way.”  

Empire State of Mind: Nursing Homes and Sexual Harassment

“Success is a lousy teacher.  It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” 

— Bill Gates 

It is nothing short of astonishing how quickly a popular public figure can fall in American society.  Popularity, particularly among public officials, is precarious.  And neither major party has cornered the market on stupidity.  

We find the latest instance of a precipitous decline in New York, with three term Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Ten months ago, Cuomo’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis appeared to be crafting a playbook for other governors.  However, the successes in Cuomo’s career perhaps made him believe his penchant for making the right calls would allow him to get away with nearly anything.  

To briefly summarize, Cuomo is blue blood status in New York.  His father, Mario Cuomo was a popular three term governor of New York with an extensive array of written works.  The elder Cuomo also donated significant amounts of money to charitable organizations.  To say that Andrew Cuomo was groomed for the job might be an understatement.  

Cuomo served on his father’s campaign for governor, worked as a private lawyer and assistant district attorney for New York.  In 1993, he received a position as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration.

In 2006, Cuomo ran a successful campaign for Attorney General of New York, a significant building block for his later campaign for governor.  His tenure as Attorney General received high marks from most corners of the state, as Cuomo’s office was involved in a significant number of high profile investigations.  Four years later, Cuomo made the move to the governor’s office.  

Though a Democratic stronghold, Cuomo did win elections with a significant crossover appeal.  He has backed a number of more conservative stances, including tax breaks for companies who wished to move to the Empire State.  

Fast forward to March 2020, when COVID-19 arrived in the United States.  Under Cuomo’s direction, the state secured tests, encouraged masks and distancing, put non-essential businesses on lockdown, and the governor appeared on media frequently urging the public to take the virus seriously.  He also openly criticized the federal government’s response as too weak, and the nation heaped praises on Cuomo as the right kind of leader.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is coming under fire for claims of misleading the public and sexual harassment

Though Cuomo did have a failed run at governor in 2002, he succeeded in almost all of his endeavors in his career.  But with this much success in his life, Cuomo reminds me of a gambler on a hot streak who never believes he might lose.  That level of success only teaches you that more wins lie ahead.

Last fall, Cuomo took another peculiar step by publishing a book on leadership, American Crisis. All the signs seemed to point towards a future presidential run. 

In the last month, two major bombs crushed Cuomo’s popularity and his future as a presidential hopeful.  

During the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuomo ordered that data about the number of deaths due to the virus from nursing homes be withheld.  The governor later admitted that he feared the high number of deaths would be used by the Trump administration as a major critique against Cuomo and Democrats.  

A count of approximately 8,500 deaths in nursing homes turned out to be closer to 15,000.  Cuomo’s administration attempted to explain the underreporting of the deaths as a ‘pause’ on data collection to prevent any deaths from being reported twice.  Was this genuinely the case?  Of course, the possibility exists, but Cuomo and his team are no amateurs.  If the data collection was taking more time to correctly assess the death toll, the governor’s office should have said as much. 

Cuomo also blamed the media for their portrayal of the underreporting of deaths, claiming that news outlets misled or outright lied about the story.  At least one New York lawmaker claimed the governor low-key threatened him over his comments on the matter.  Assemblyman Ron Kim claims Cuomo called him at home and threatened to destroy Kim’s career if the assemblyman did not back off his dogged criticisms of the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.  Kim’s allegations are not the first from lawmakers who state the governor attempted to strong-arm them.

Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-40)

The pandemic’s effects on nursing homes received more scrutiny when media outlets reported that early in the crisis, the Cuomo administration directed that nursing homes admit recovering COVID-19 patients before they completely recovered from the virus.  The Associated Press conducted its own search and found over 4,500 patients who had been released by hospitals into the care of nursing homes.  

Dr. Michael Wasserman, president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, was quoted as reporting, “There has never been any question in my mind that sending COVID-19 patients into completely unprepared, understaffed and underresourced nursing homes both increased transmission and led to a greater number of deaths.”  This type of mistake by the Cuomo Administration and the state of New York is difficult to process.  Though Cuomo later reversed this directive, the damage was done.  Currently, federal prosecutors and the FBI are looking into the situation to assess any potential illegal actions.

If Cuomo had any hope of rebounding from this mistake, he suffered another major blow when a former aide accused the him of sexual harassment.  This week, Lindsay Boylan published an article on medium.com,  detailing claims of inappropriate conduct from Cuomo.  

Boylan, a Wellsley and Columbia graduate, established herself as a valued employee in the economic and financial fields.  Her success enabled her to land a job as a Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Special Advisor to the Governor of New York.

Lindsay Boylan, former aide to Cuomo, alleged the governor sexually harassed her

The allegations in Boylan’s account should shock the conscience.  Yet, they feel too normal in the world today and that’s a sad state of affairs.  Boylan contends the people around Cuomo — including women — created a culture where the governor’s gross behavior was normalized.  She also wrote that when she began to speak up to others in the administration about Cuomo’s unwanted attention, she received reprimands.

Among the allegations levied by Boylan include being summoned by the governor for no apparent job related purpose, a request to play ‘strip poker,’ references to looking like the governor’s former girlfriend (but ‘hotter’), unwanted touching on the lower back, arms and legs.  She also purported that Cuomo showed her a cigar from former President Clinton (a reference to the Clinton affair with Monica Lewinsky).  Boylan was also repeatedly informed by staffers and former employers that the governor had a ‘crush’ on her.  

Why on earth did Cuomo do these things?

Success has an ill effect on people.  When politicians or celebrities experience sustained success, it generally has some basis in good decision making and the proper application of intellect and skills.  At some point, the good decisions of any politician become less about the fact that the decisions are themselves good.  These individuals sometimes come to believe the decisions are good because they are the ones who made the decisions.  They promote their ideas as inherently right because it was their idea.  That’s a dangerous place for any person to be.  In a very real sense, Cuomo and others like him are victims of their own success. 

Accolades and accomplishments also change the attitude of many successful people.  They begin to believe they are more deserving than other individuals.  They forget how many people contributed to their education and career.  They believe they did it all on their own and as such, they deserve praise and treatment above the rest of society.  Politicians seem particularly vulnerable to developing a sense of entitlement because their successes tend to benefit large swaths of society or monied interests who will be appreciative.  An entitled person looks at his or her self and thinks, “They owe me.”  It doesn’t help Cuomo’s case that he grew up in a world of privilege.

Also, there’s the possibility that Cuomo is attempting to distinguish himself from his father’s legacy and prove to the world that he not only equaled his father’s achievements, but eclipsed them.  Ambition can be the best of friends, and simultaneously the worst of enemies.

The effect 

During the pandemic, Cuomo’s polling numbers shot upward, with an approval rating of over 63%  and only 33% disapproved.  With the revelations from the last week, his approval rating has already dropped to 57% in some polls, and the damage may not be done.  During Cuomo’s tenure as governor, his approval rating has waxed and waned, but it’s mostly been high.  He loses political capital here and his ability to affect policy has to be diminished.

It’s important to recognize also that Assemblyman Ron Kim and other critics of Cuomo have already proposed legislation that would limit the governor’s authority.  While it’s still unclear how much momentum this effort will gain, it’s a significant change to government structure for who creates policy in the state of New York.

Cuomo spent the last four years criticizing former President Donald Trump, but the governor might genuinely benefit from Trump’s shenanigans.  Scandals tarnish any administration, but Trump’s time in the White House diminished the impact of these situations.  Trump supporters  made so many excuses for the former president’s insane behavior, that most things, by comparison, almost seem trivial.  

I’m not trivializing the behavior of Governor Cuomo, but the state of New York seems to have no problem doing so.  While his approval rating experienced a hit, Cuomo still has more than half of the state supporting him.  In light of the allegations against him, how can New Yorkers still approve of their chief executive?  Perhaps they have fallen under the spell of tribalism, where poor behavior only matters when politicians of the opposing party err.  

Though New Yorkers still appear content with Cuomo’s leadership, any possibility for a presidential run seems out of the question.  At the age of 63, Cuomo’s best chance at a run wouldn’t come until at least 2028, when he would be over 70.  Though not out of the question, his timing doesn’t work well when we consider Vice President Kamala Harris would be the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic standard bearer whenever President Joe Biden finishes his administration.  Of course, this does not mean Cuomo could not take on a role in the United States Senate, make another run at governor, or pursue some cabinet level position in the future.

Cuomo’s recent errors bring us to an even more concerning trend in politics and society.  Democrats, thus far, have failed to truly acknowledge the mistakes made by Cuomo and the depth of his failures.  I undoubtedly believe President Trump deserved every ounce of scrutiny for his abhorrent and unrepentant behavior.  Democrats spent four years pushing that same line.  Now is the time for Democrats to put the spotlight on one of their own and let the nation know that his behavior was both reprehensible and unacceptable.  To treat women with such low regard and to mislead the public (merely because of the optics of the data) cannot occur without repercussions.  

Yes, I am well aware of the fact that Republicans failed to call out Trump for his misdeeds towards women.  But the hypocrisy is ugly.  The Democrats have a chance to do what Republicans would not and they are not acting.  

Critics, media outlets, and other political mainstays are turning to United States Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and she is holding the party line for the moment.  Gillibrand has long advocated for believing women who make claims of sexual harassment, and was quoted in 2019 as saying, “… when allegations are made in the workplace, we must believe women so that serious investigations can actually take place, we can learn the facts, and there can be appropriate accountability.”  This statement came on the heels of an investigation into sexual harassment claims against one of her former aides. 

Moreover, since Lindsay Boylan’s accusations became public, other women have come forward with allegations against Governor Cuomo.  Officials should investigate to determine the veracity of these claims, but Democrats are missing the chance to practice what they’ve preached for years.

In fairness to local politicians in New York, some Democrats have been critical of the nursing home underreporting, but I’m skeptical of the party’s overall position on the matter.  Why?  Cuomo is a moderate Democrat who somewhat alienated the far left of the party, and the Democrats in the state are taking stances as individuals … individuals who have something to gain if Cuomo isn’t around anymore.  

Politics in New York has always been brutal, but every time something like this happens without someone stepping up to challenge the status quo, the entire nation suffers.